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We may be spoilt for choice when it comes to furnishing our homes with luxury fabrics and unique cushions, looking for bedding or fabric for a dress. But things weren't always this way. Our love affair with comfortable and contemporary fabrics and textiles changed over the years.
Fabrics and textiles are now technology, but they are more ancient than bronze. From the most ancient times to the present, so too is the story of economic development and global trade. The origins of chemistry lie in the colouring and finishing of cloth. The textile business funded the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal Empire; it left us double-entry bookkeeping and letters of credit, Michelangelo’s David and the Taj Mahal. As much as spices or gold, the quest for fabrics and dyestuffs drew sailors across strange seas. In ways both subtle and obvious, textiles made our world.
Fabric creation began in ancient times when primitive peoples used flax fibers, separated into strands and woven into simple fabrics colored with dyes extracted from plants. Innovators developed synthetic fabrics to overcome some of the inherent limitations of natural fibers.
Natural fibre, any hairlike raw material directly obtainable from an animal, vegetable, or mineral source and convertible into nonwoven fabrics such as felt or paper or, after spinning into yarns, into woven cloth. A natural fibre may be further defined as an agglomeration of cells in which the diameter is negligible in comparison with the length. Although nature abounds in fibrous materials, especially cellulosic types such as cotton, wood, grains, and straw, only a small number can be used for textile products or other industrial purposes. Apart from economic considerations, the usefulness of a fibre for commercial purposes is determined by such properties as length, strength, pliability, elasticity, abrasion resistance, absorbency, and various surface properties. Most textile fibres are slender, flexible, and relatively strong. They are elastic in that they stretch when put under tension and then partially or completely return to their original length when the tension is removed.
The oldest indication of fibre use is probably the discovery of flax and wool fabrics at excavation sites of the Swiss lake dwellers (7th and 6th centuries BCE). Several vegetable fibres were also used by prehistoric peoples. The art of weaving and spinning linen was already well developed in Egypt by 3400 BCE, indicating that flax was cultivated sometime before that date. Reports of the spinning of cotton in India date back to 3000 BCE. The manufacture of silk and silk products originated in the highly developed Chinese culture; the invention and development of sericulture (cultivation of silkworms for raw-silk production) and of methods to spin silk date from 2640 BCE.
With improved transportation and communication, highly localized skills and arts connected with textile manufacture spread to other countries and were adapted to local needs and capabilities.
After the dark ages were over, people could stop worrying if their houses were going to be burnt down, and began to focus on what was inside them. Standards of living began to improve and thoughts turned to comfort. Cushions could be added to solid oak chairs to offer a little comfort, but there were no cushions on the backs of chairs - people had to make do with leaning against tapestries hung on the walls. Italy began making the finest silk, which quickly spread to Britain. Weavers made wall hangings, bed drapes and cushions, reserved only for the very wealthy.
In the Elizabethan Era levels of comfort significantly increased. Heavy curtains were draped over bedheads and around four poster beds to prevent drafts. Mantelpiece drapes were also very popular, and all types of draperies became more and more elaborate - even for windows. Tall windows were framed with window headings, deep swags and tails. These were often heavily trimmed, surrounded by intricate wooden cornices.
The man-made fibers--and a steadily growing palette of synthetic additives--made it possible to add flame-retardancy, wrinkle and stain resistance, antimicrobial properties and a host of other performance improvements.
Silk damask, wool moreen, elaborate embroidery were used more and more in upholstery. Cushions were made of horsehair with linen lining and down. Beds were one of the most upholstered pieces in the house: bedsteads were totally covered in soft fabrics such as velvet.
Innovators developed synthetic fabrics to overcome some of the inherent limitations of natural fibers. Cotton and linens wrinkle, silk requires delicate handling, and wool shrinks and can be irritating to the touch. Synthetics delivered greater comfort, soil release, broader aesthetic range, dyeing capabilities, abrasion resistance, colorfastness, and lower costs.
Some famous textile and fabrics and their invention:
Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis in 1873 invented blue jeans in response to the need for laborers for durable men's workwear. The traditional fabric used in blue jeans is denim, a durable cotton twill textile. Historically, denim was made of silk and wool in Nimes, France (hence the name "de Nim"), and not of the all-cotton variety we are familiar with today.
In the 1980s, Sally Fox's passion for natural fibers led her to reinvent the naturally colored cotton used in cotton fabrics, mostly as a response to the pollution caused via the bleaching and dying processes performed in coloring cotton fabrics. Fox crossbred brown cotton, which also produced green cotton, with the aim to develop longer fibers and richer colors.
In turn, Fox's organic discoveries help to preserve the environment and can be found in everything from underwear to bedding.
American chemist Stephanie Louise Kwolek in 1965 invented Kevlar, a synthetic, heat-resistant material that is five times stronger than steel--and strong enough to stop bullets. It's also used to make boats. Kwolek was researching lighter material to use in tires that would give cars better fuel economy when she discovered Kevlar. Today, Kevlar is used in armor, tennis racquet strings, ropes, shoes and more.
Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh in 1823 invented a method for making waterproof garments when he discovered that coal-tar naphtha dissolved rubber. He took a wool cloth and painted one side with the dissolved rubber preparation and placed another layer of wool cloth on top. The Mackintosh raincoat created from the new fabric was named after him.
British scientists John Whinfield and James Dickson in 1941--along with W.K. Birtwhistle and C.G. Ritchiethey--created Terylene, the first polyester fabric. The durable fiber was once known as uncomfortable to wear but inexpensive. With the addition of microfibers that make the fabric feel like silk--and the rising price tag because of it--polyester is here to stay.
Rayon was the first manufactured fiber made from wood or cotton pulp and was first known as artificial silk. Swiss chemist Georges Audemars invented the first crude artificial silk around 1855 by dipping a needle into liquid mulberry bark pulp and gummy rubber to make threads, but the method was too slow to be practical.
In 1884, French chemist Hilaire de Charbonnet patented an artificial silk that was a cellulose-based fabric known as Chardonnay silk. Pretty but very flammable, it was removed from the market.
In 1894, British inventors Charles Cross, Edward Bevan, and Clayton Beadle patented a safe practical method of making artificial silk that came to be known as viscose rayon.
Nylon And Neoprene
Wallace Hume Carothers was the brains behind DuPont and the birth of synthetic fibers. Nylon--which was patented in September 1938--is the first completely synthetic fiber to ever be used in consumer products. And while the word "nylons" became another word for hosiery, all nylon was diverted to military needs only when the United States entered World War II. The synthesis of polymers that led to the discovery of nylon led to the discovery of neoprene, a highly resistant synthetic rubber.
Other inventions, from bent steel to fiberglass to molded foam cores, revolutionised furniture design and brought about many of the modern designs in furniture we still see today.
In 1942, William Hanford and Donald Holmes invented polyurethane. Polyurethane is the basis of a novel type of elastomeric fiber known generically as spandex. It is a man-made fiber (segmented polyurethane) able to stretch at least 100% and snap back like natural rubber. It replaced the rubber used in women's underwear. Spandex was created in the late 1950s, developed by E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company, Inc.
Swiss engineer and mountaineer George de Mestral noticed upon his return from a hike in 1948 how the burrs had clung to his clothing. After eight years of research, Mestral developed what we know today as Velcro--a combination of the words "velvet" and "crochet. "It's essentially two strips of fabric--one made up of thousands of tiny hooks, and the other with thousands of tiny loops. Mestral patented Velcro in 1955.
Researcher Waldo L. Semon in 1926 invented a way to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) useful when he created vinyl--a synthetic gel that was remarkably similar to rubber. Vinyl remained a curiosity in the laboratory until it was first used as shock absorber seals. Flexible vinyl was also used on American synthetic tires.
In 1970, Toray Industries scientist Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto invented the world's first microfiber. A few months later, his colleague Dr. Toyohiko Hikota succeeded in developing a process that would transform these microfibers into an amazing new fabric: Ultrasuede--an ultra-microfiber often called a synthetic substitute for leather or suede. It's used in shoes, automobiles, interior furnishings, juggling balls and more. The composition of Ultrasuede ranges from 80% non-woven polyester and 20% non-fibrous polyurethane to 65% polyester and 35% polyurethane.
As innovation in technology drives innovation, apparel, upholstery and furnishing fabric is both beautiful and functional.
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